One hundred and fifty-two years ago today, on April 9, 1865, Confederate commanding General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to the Union commander General Ulysses Grant in a short ceremony. It happened at the house of Wilmer McLean, located in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. This was not the total end of fighting in the Civil War, but it was the end of organized and official resistance. It was a turning point in American history, and the McLean House is quite rightly recognized as one of the most historically important buildings in the United States.
The day on which the surrender occurred was a Sunday, and, as it is this year (2017), also Palm Sunday. It was the start of a triumphant but also tragic week in U.S. history. The major bloodletting of the Civil War was brought to an end on Sunday, but at the beginning of the next weekend, Friday, April 14, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. He died early Saturday morning, the 15th. I doubt there have been many single weeks in the history of the United States that have been more momentous–or that have ranged so far an emotional gamut from elation and triumph to the depths of national despair.
Less than a week after the surrender at Appomattox, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Unknown to the public, however, he was dying of cancer at the time.
I find time a fascinating subject (I wrote a book on it, after all), and lately I’ve become more acutely aware of historical events that converge in time. Time and history don’t flow evenly, nor are events random and unconnected. There may be something to the theories of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who suggested that everything is connected in time, and coincidence is actually “synchronicity” with a meaning that taps into a broader realm of the mind that we don’t fully understand. Of course the events of April 9-16, 1865 were not coincidental at all–there was a definite causal link between the Appomattox surrender and Lincoln’s tragic assassination–but I still see a hint of “synchronicity” there. While it’s neither rigidly scientific nor historical to suggest it, I could be persuaded that the violent and momentous events of that week were connected to a broader collective trauma that America was suffering at that time. The events of that week are indicative of that trauma.
The moral and psychological effects of historical events are rarely discussed, even in (especially in) academia. The Civil War wounded America in ways that we’re still trying to deal with today. The long and bitter legacy of slavery is still definitely with us in 2017, playing out in more ways than we can count even more than 150 years after the conflict over it ended. (And yes, the Civil War was about slavery–make no mistake about that). Although no American alive today was a contemporary of Lincoln, I think we’re still scarred, collectively and historically, by his assassination and the reasons behind it. But because of a unique convergence in time, that event of April 14, 1865 can never be decoupled from the event that occurred the previous Sunday. I find that amazing and interesting in a way that’s hard to express in empirical terms.
The McLean House, today a national monument, has been restored to much of its appearance at the time of Lee’s surrender, which was signed in this room on Palm Sunday, 1865.
I’ve never been to the McLean house, though I would definitely like to see it. I suspect that within that quiet parlor, where some strokes of a pen changed American history, you can feel the tragedy of Lincoln and the whole Civil War seeping out of the walls and between the old floorboards. History isn’t just information you glean from books. In some places in this land it lives and lingers, intangibly perhaps, but still there nonetheless. This is what I think about when I consider the events of April 1865.